News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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June 26, 2014

Vigo County CASA in dire need of more program volunteers

128 children are waiting for court advocates

TERRE HAUTE — Who speaks for the children?

The children with parents who neglect, abuse or abandon them? The children who have been placed in foster homes, or who have been returned to adults with poor parenting skills or drug addictions?

In many cases — for 547 children so far this year — the person speaking on behalf of the children in Vigo County is a Court Appointed Special Advocate or a CASA.

Vigo County now has 123 active CASA volunteers serving 407 children.

But 128 children who need advocates have none because there are not enough volunteers. Instead, those 128 children are on the waiting list to have a CASA assigned to them, Nineteen more are waiting to be added to the waiting list.

CASA volunteer recruiter and trainer Ginger Bedford hopes to change that shortage..

“Picture, if you will, 142 children standing in your lobby,” Bedford said as an illustration of the youths needing help. “This is more than some churches have on a Sunday morning. This is almost four classrooms at any given school.”

Bedford hopes that people with a few extra hours a month will decide to make a difference for a child by taking the 30-hour training and then making at least one in-person visit per month to check on the child.

Debbie Pepelea is one CASA volunteer who told the Tribune-Star that she is glad she made the commitment two summers ago.

“As a CASA volunteer, we are focused on the needs of the children,” Pepelea said. “Getting them help to cope with what is happening, especially if the children have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care. Learning about their circumstances. Getting to know their family members. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What can I do to help this child?’”

Obvious needs are food, clothing and shelter. But some parents also lack parenting skills necessary to make sure their children go to doctor appointments, or take medicine as prescribed or go to parent-teacher conferences.

In some cases, the reason for removing a child from a home was the deplorable living conditions of the dwelling. In other cases, it is because the parents have issues of their own that hinder them from taking care of their children.

In the first six months of 2014, the county has seen 160 new filings for Children In Need of Services, or CHINS, cases. All of those children must have a CASA assigned to their cases, according to a state mandate. In the same six-month time frame, 547 children have received services.

CASA director Nikki Fuhrmeister said that growth in numbers already comes close to eclipsing last year’s total of 618 children who were served in a full 12 months.

Fuhrmeister said she is proud of CASA volunteers who have stepped up and taken on more cases to make sure children are represented in court proceedings.

Bedford is handling six cases with a total of 10 children. She began volunteering after being retired for eight years, and now she works 16 hours in the week coordinating and recruiting more volunteers.

“As a CASA, we are probably the most consistent person in that child’s life,” she said.

She makes home visits, and she has even accompanied some parents with the child to appointments to make sure of the instructions for the child’s care. She then relays that information to the court.

Bedford said she is also willing to speak to organizations and churches about the CASA program to recruit new volunteers.

Pepelea said she has enjoyed her two years of volunteering.

“As a volunteer we are asked to check on the children we have on a monthly basis,” she said. “I seem to check on my ‘kids’ more often than that, but that’s my choice. I have fallen in love with each and every one of my kids so far, in one way or another. They have all been special and unique in their own way.”

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